Excerpts from My Commonplace Book: On Doubt, Fear, and Failure

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I prefaced the first article in this series by saying “By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is ‘Keeping a Commonplace Book’ (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!).” and it’s still true. When I get a Pinterest notification, nine times out of ten, it’s someone liking or repinning that article. (The other 10% consists mainly of people liking something I pinned as a joke, ha.)

For this month’s article, I chose the theme of “doubt, fear, and failure” because I think all writers have experienced feeling like they have no idea what they’re doing, like everyone around them is more talented, like they’re writing and writing and writing and getting nowhere. If you’re feeling like an imposter, rest assured, you’re not alone. Every writer has been there at some point. Remember, everyone has their gameface on, and what they allow you to see does not reflect their own internal struggles.

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.Neil Gaiman {+}

What’s your advice to new writers? Don’t give a shit. Don’t care. Books, until recently, were dangerous: banned, burned, watched. Write something dangerous. Say something you shouldn’t. Blow something up. But well.Shalom Auslander {+}

Anyway, do we really want consistency in an artist? What does this pressure to please the market have to do with art? Originality involves risk, and risk implies the possibility of failure. That’s how greatness is born.Robert McCrum {+}

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. —Katherine Mansfield {+}

I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one’s career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept.Rebecca Brown {+}

I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.Jessa Crispin {+}

I was talking to my graduate class a bit … about how career writers—career anything, I suppose—are always having to list their shiny accomplishments, and how it would be such a great relief sometime to write up your Anti-Vita and let people see it. It would be such a moment of candor, of behind-the-curtain truth. All the awards you didn’t get, all the amazing journals your work wasn’t good enough to be published in, all the prizes you were nominated for but—oops!—didn’t actually win. Sigh. All the teaching innovations, trotted out with such high hopes, that failed miserably. And so on. How you sat at home on the sofa and muttered, “What’s the point?,” embarrassing yourself and boring your family members, who tiptoed quietly away. Revealing all the failures would be such a relief, such an exhale, such an “I’m nobody, who are you?” opportunity. —Joy Castro {+}

It’s painful to write. It’s painful to take a clear look at your finances, at your health, at your relationships. At least it’s painful when you have no confidence that you can actually improve in those areas. I would not speak for anyone else, but most of my distractions … are traceable to a deep-seated fear that I may not ultimately prevail.Ta-Nehisi Coates {+}

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t writeW. S. Merwin {+}

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer”—I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing—“I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” … It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better.Sonya Chung {+}

[M]y internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.Dani Shapiro {+}

“[T]hat kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.” This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it.Michelle Huneven {+}

[I]n my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.Junot Díaz {+}

What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent. … Every writer gets rejected, sometimes over and over. But the ones who only have potential stop submitting (or just stop writing) somewhere along the way. They get discouraged and feel beat down. And then, before you know it, they’ve become someone who used to be a writer. Or someone who wanted to be a writer. —Chris Guillebeau {+}

[Writing a book is] very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon … While it’s tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it’s just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools.Mary McNamara {+}

I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.” There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented. It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were. —Michelle Huneven {+}

“A novel is a work of a certain length that is somehow flawed,” a wise critic once said—and as I was told during the first few weeks of my MFA program. To write a novel, and see to it through from the first word to the 150,000th, you have to be willing to embrace the idea that every once in a while your prose is going to be, for lack of a better word, more prosaic than it would be otherwise. Why? Because to get a reader to make it through 150,000 words (the length of my last, and about the length of your average robust novel), you need this clunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot. —Hector Tobar {+}

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. —Richard Rhodes {+}

I worry about rejection, but not too much. The real fear isn’t rejection, but that there won’t be enough time in your life to write all the stories you have in you. So every time I put a new one in the mail, I know I’ve beaten death again. —Ray Bradbury {+}

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” [Joan] Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” … Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.Adrienne LaFrance {+}

Excerpts From My Commonplace Book: On Not Writing

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is “Keeping a Commonplace Book” (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!). As I mentioned in that article, for several years now, I’ve been collecting quotes on my blog and many of those quotes are writing-related. So when casting about for a topic for this month’s article, it occurred to me that the same people who are interested in the how-tos of commonplacing might also be interested in some of the content I put in mine.

I decided to take a ‘quotes on a theme’ approach and pull quotes that relate to a specific topic. It turns out I’ve collected a lot of writing quotes, so there will likely be future articles on other themes, but for this month’s article, I chose the theme of “not writing”—a subject that seems to be of universal concern to writers. If you wrote fewer words in 2014 than you intended to—this one’s for you. Take heart. Not-writing is as much a part of the writing process as placing words on the page. If you’re in writing drought right now, remember the writing life is a cycle. One day the words will begin to flow again. Trust.

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing. During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. … I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. —Susanna Daniel {+}

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort. It works something like this: When our brains are presented with a problem—any problem—we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution! But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside—delaying that endorphin high—while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option—and run with it—consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.Molly Idle {+}

Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves? But winter happens. Then spring comes. —Sarah Selecky {+}

Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art. —Nick Ripatrazone {+}

Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. —Julia Fierro {+}

There are a number of mysteries in [Penelope Fitzgerald’s] life, areas of silence and obscurity. One of these has to do with “lateness”. How much of a late starter, really, was she? She always said in interviews that she started writing her first novel (The Golden Child) to entertain her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when he was ill. But, like many of the things she told interviewers, there is something a little too simple about this. … There is a poignant note inside the back cover of her teaching notebook for 1969, a long time before she started to publish: “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it.” Yet the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show that she was always thinking about art and writing: they show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing itself to burst out.Hermione Lee {+}

I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. … But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It’s no bad thing to start a writing career after you’ve experienced a bit of life.Alexander McCall Smith {+}

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people … other people blog properly. … The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. … [U]ntil I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines. Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves. —Jaclyn Moriarty {+}

Vertical writing … values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. … vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. … Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.Nick Ripatrazone {+}

By and large really great writing from all wars comes a good time afterwards, when a person has had the time to let material develop and form itself, so that it’s not rhetorical. So that it’s not so heavily autobiographical. … It’s a bit like writing about cancer; there needs to be time. You need to find a way to transcend the tendency to put in every little detail. Just because it felt so important, it may not be important to the reader. And time is needed for imagination to come into play and to work with the material, to shape a story that may not be wholly in the real world, but only partly. —Tim O’Brien {+}

Nancy Slonim Aronie writes “great work comes after good work which comes after lousy work which comes after no work. remember that order.” please do. —Irene Nam {+}

What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does get done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry. —Alex Gallo-Brown {+}

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give a subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level. —Ray Bradbury {+}

Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it. —William Zinsser {+}

I used to think that I needed wide open days and uncluttered hours to get important creative work done. Sometimes that’s true. But I’ve also learned that perhaps more important than what happens when I’m staring at the page is what happens when I’m not. How I chew on the idea in my downtime. My subconscious must know about the deadline—needs it, even—and works feverishly to pull it all together. Perhaps it’s even a pipe dream to imagine having something done early enough to bask in its finished glory with a glass of wine. And maybe that’s not even the point—writing is work and the furious finish is part of the process. —S. Hope Mills {+}

What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”

 

Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


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